Thursday, April 2, 2015
The Cup of Love Poured Out
(and critique of Ransom and Substitution Theories)
I have a communion chalice that I keep on my shelf. It’s my favorite chalice, aside from the ones given to me as gifts. I found it at a local pottery shop in North Carolina and was completely captivated by it. I thought this earthy, blue chalice was the most beautiful one I had ever seen.
It occurred to me one day a few years ago that the purpose of this chalice is not to sit pretty on my shelf. It was made for so much more, yet I leave it on display most of the time. I suppose we are like that at times. We are created in the image of our gracious and loving God for more than we can possibly imagine, yet sometimes we find ourselves sitting pretty in church, as if that’s what’s important.
Reflecting with my chalice in hand that day, I began to think that the real purpose of this chalice is not to sit there; it is to be filled. We come to a place in the Christian life when we discover that we are called beyond the ministry of showing up. This longing is evident in our prayer and praise, as we sing “Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord.” We yearn to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to be completely saturated with the love of God.
Yet upon further reflection on the cup in my hand, I realized that this is not the ultimate purpose of the chalice either. As I tipped my wonderful blue chalice over on its side in my hands, I began to see that the purpose of this chalice is not to be filled. The ultimate purpose of this chalice is to be emptied. It is to be poured out.
This is our spirituality of Good Friday. The cross is the intentional, redemptive, self-emptying love of God poured out.
There have been many teachings throughout history on the atonement, the work of God for our redemption through the cross. These have taken shape in a few different ways over the centuries. Perhaps the most prominent theories are “ransom” theory and “substitution” theory. I am at a place in my journey where I am not a fan of either.
Ransom theory was developed fairly early in Christianity. It’s my understanding that for the first thousand years or so, the idea prevailed that the blood of Christ purchased our forgiveness from Satan. But for me, the idea that God “paid off” the devil falls gravely short of capturing the truth of the cross.
In later history, the idea was transformed to the theory that God purchased our pardon not from the devil, but from God’s very self. Similar to this later development is substitution theory, the idea that because of God’s righteousness and justice, God had to place judgment on somebody. So God substituted Jesus for us, who took the punishment for our sin. Again, this falls short because it is hard to imagine a God who needed a “cosmic punching bag” to settle his internal issues.
Here’s the thing. The ideas of ransom and substitution are definitely scriptural, as the early church began to unpack the meaning of the cross. In some ways, they are rooted in Christ’s transformation of the temple sacrificial system, for he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
But I believe ransom and substitution are best seen as metaphors and illustrations, for they fall short of giving us a comprehensive theory on how the cross reconciles us with God. In the end, placing all our eggs in one of their baskets just doesn’t make sense.
So what is the fullest meaning of the cross? What better place to go than Jesus’ first words about it, the first Christian sermon about it, and the first Christian hymn about it.
The first thing Jesus said about the cross in the book of John was “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John notes that he was indicating the kind of death he was to die. The first time Jesus spoke of cross should carry some weight. The cross was intended to draw all people to the heart of God, “for God so loved the world (“cosmos” in the Greek) that he gave his only Son” … “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
That means there is something cosmic, something earth shattering and game changing about the cross. Whatever it is, it’s not just an “example to follow.”
If Jesus’ first words about the cross carry weight, what about first sermon and first hymn? In a recent Bible study, we were reading Paul’s sermon in Acts 13. Someone in the group remarked “this is the first Easter sermon.” I was intrigued.
Knowing this was not the first sermon in the early church, a distinction that would go to Peter, I looked back at the texts. This was indeed the first sermon that contained what I would consider theory of atonement. After reciting salvation history in Hebrew style, culminating in the cross and resurrection, Paul continued “Let it be known to you therefore … that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”
This cosmic event is one that frees us from sin, yes indeed. But I noticed there there was no purchase language here, and no substitution language either. By the incredible love of the cross, all who respond are freed from the bondage of sin.
What about first Christian hymn we have record of? That would be in Philippians 2. Scholars agree that in verses 5-11, Paul is reciting the words to an ancient Christian hymn, which makes it the first one we still have record of.
It’s incredible in its expression of the atoning work of Christ, singing “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” This is why he is exalted and lifted up.
These three sources give us a pretty good understanding of the outpouring of love expressed in the cross. Who can beat Jesus’ first words, the first sermon, and the first hymn about the cross?
So my theory of the atonement is this. The cross is the ultimate, redemptive expression of God's intentional, self-emptying love. It was not something that happened when God wasn’t looking, sort of a “cosmic fumble” after which God returned the ball in the last second of the game. And it is a comprehensive mystery that can’t possibly be fully explained with a metaphor such as a financial purchase or a substitution for a sacrifice.
It was not just given to us as an example to follow. It completely changed the game. It brings forgiveness to all who would be drawn to the cross. And it calls us to a new love, with the way of the cross guiding us. As the hymn Paul shared reminds us, “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
So it turns out the overturned chalice in my hand a few years ago gave me a pretty good understanding of the cross. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s the meaning of what love is, and life is not about being filled up but about being emptied out.
That’s the meaning of the cross. That’s the meaning of Holy Week. And that’s the meaning of life.